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Augustus read the documents Heratio recovered, carefully. His house finances seemed in order, but they would always look that way at first glance. Even if he found something that could be incriminating, Augustus knew he couldn’t just bring the ledger to the magistrates as an accusation. That would implicate his own part in the fire at Giovannus’ estate. Instead, he needed to glean information to improve his decisions moving forward. What did Giovannus have in the works? Does he even have a plan? The questions needed answering but, as of yet, no answer presented itself.

Marielle was, thankfully, allowing him time alone before he needed to discuss his own plan. He had a vague outline, but he feared that wouldn’t be enough to satisfy her. It was pointless to make concrete plans though, they would shift like sand dunes in a storm. A concrete plan could be a detriment, rather than a boon, limiting his thinking down a single path. The plan as Augustus saw it, was simple. Limit Giovannus resources and actions while keeping their resources and allies safe, steadily accumulating more allies. Explaining that alone would leave waters murky, and murky waters wouldn’t be the stress relief she needed right now. It had become clear the stress of this situation would take a toll on Marielle. He didn’t blame her for that, in fact, in his mind, he commended her that it only now became a problem. This situation would cause anyone to worry.

Augustus slid his fingers through his hair, releasing single strands of his curly brown hair from his head, to fall onto his papers. He swiped them away and returned to scanning the documents. There had to be something. He flipped the page in the ledger. Still nothing. As far as Augustus could tell, Giovannus was burning through his savings. Although Giovannus’ upkeep costs were greater than Augustus’, he also had more coin saved up. Nothing suggested him profiting off some secret dealings. Of course, he probably had a second ledger tucked away somewhere hidden to keep track of the nefarious deals he must be engaged in.

Augustus closed the book in frustration and clenched his jaw. It didn’t matter, Augustus told himself. When his mind cleared, he became more aware of his surroundings, and the sounds coming from outside the study door. He could hear Marielle and Heratio talking. The sound muffled by the walls, he only understood disconnected words without context. He gave up trying to hear and instead stared out the window at the swaying branches and the birds that would perch for a moment then fly off.

As he watched the movement out his window, he evaluated the lay of the land, working through likely scenarios until he determined how he would frame things, and put his wife’s mind at ease. He scrutinized the most likely scenario, evaluating the branches of possibilities that could offshoot and developed the plan he would tell Marielle. All the while, resolving to abandon it the moment circumstances dictated. Like in stixis, the ability to adapt to the current situation always outweighed the value of a plan. Outside he heard the servant return, the thumping sounding of them placing their purchases on the table. Then the sound of Marielle coming down the stairs. Now ready, he stood up and left the study to find Marielle already sorting through the seedlings.

“Let’s start bringing these out to the garden,” he said as he grabbed hold of a tray filled with a grid of small sprouts peeping up from the dirt.

Marielle nodded and followed with her own tray, through the back door into the barren garden that they had prepared days prior. There were six cleared beds of dirt, the soil already turned. The two of them were alone, with the servants remaining indoors. Both with a spade in hand, they got on their knees and began parting the dirt to insert the pocket of dirt that should eventually bloom into a flower.

“So, what’s the plan?” Marielle asked once the work began.

Augustus took a look around before speaking. No one else was around. “The first step is to secure a loan. Quintus has connections to the Sentellius. I believe the Sentellius family is our best shot of getting that loan. Quintus’ positive introduction would help immensely, and facilitate the process.”

“Won’t they want collateral?” She said while demonstrating how to insert the sprout pods properly. “Put these ones over here, they’re the lilies.”

“I can put up my portion of the profits of the Maysian expedition as collateral.”

“If you could do that, why haven’t you used it to secure a loan already?” Marielle stopped planting and looked up at Augustus in confusion.

“The expedition logs are owned by the Castellian family. If I was caught showing them off in an effort to secure a loan, it could be used against me. Giovannus would claim that I betrayed the family, say that I was a spy. And without those official documents, anyone would be hesitant to make that loan. They would just assume the endeavour ended fruitlessly and you were trying to trick them into loaning more than the collateral was worth.”

“So, why the Sentellius family? Just a moment, I’ll be right back.” Marielle stood up and went over to the pile of brown compost. Augustus watched as she filled a bucket with a brown fibrous material, then returned. “This is the mulch we’ll use. Once the sprouts are planted, we need to stop the weeds already in the soil from crowding out our flowers. That’s why we put down this straw to block out the sun, our flowers will grow up out of the cover and the weeds will die from being starved of sunlight. So, why the Sentellius family?”

Augustus copied Marielle’s actions and continued the talk casually, without bothering to look up and gauge her reaction. “The man in charge of our taxation at the port is Aerin DeSentellius. Because of that, he would be aware that the expedition is a success. Although he is rather far removed from the main family, a position working handling import taxes would be beneath someone of the main branch of an important family, he is no doubt a valuable source of information for them. I will ask them for a loan, they should turn to him to verify the value of my collateral and, most likely at an exorbitant interest rate, lend me the coin I require.”

“Then what? How will you deal with Giovannus once you secure a loan?” Asked Marielle. She placed the last of the mulch covering the last corner of that flower bed. “Let’s move to another flower bed, we’ll do the same thing. Over here we’ll plant the orange and purple lilacs.”

“With that coin, I’ll be able to wine and dine prospective allies in the family, bringing them over to our side. I’ll also hire more security so we survive long enough to be paid for the expedition. Once the selling of the spice, furs, and ores is complete, I will be able to use the profits as an advertisement for my ability. A large share of profits goes directly to the family trust. It would be as if I directly contributed to the fullness of their pockets, and that is always appreciated.”

“You think Giovannus will try to have us killed.” He watched as her work slowed down. Her eyes still fixed on her actions, but Augustus could tell without looking into her eyes that worry was creeping back into her mind.

“Eventually, he will try. However, he will be slowed down by the bad luck he experienced last night. But, I am sure, he is already plotting something, as soon as he can find hired goons he can trust, he will try to do to us at least as much as we’ve done to him.”

“At least, unlike him, we will expect the retaliation.” Marielle forced a hesitant nod, causing Augustus to smile. Good, he thought, push those thoughts of fear out of your mind.

“First, I will rally allies to my side. Pascal, my uncle, is already supporting me. He will work with his branch of the family. Quintus is a smart man, he should be ready to switch sides after a bit of coaxing. Once we feel we have secured enough votes, we will force our mother, Julianna, to hold an emergency convocation. After the vote concludes in our favour, Giovannus will have to step down. A week later, we can arrange for him to befall an accident in some alleyway.” At those words, Marielle turned to look at Augustus, shocked.

Augustus stared her down until she averted her gaze. With her eyes looking at some inconsequential dirt, she asked, “You would have your brother killed?” He watched her back and shoulder muscles tighten.

“Yes. He leaves us no choice. He has shown himself to be a dangerous threat, willing to kill to get what he wants.”

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